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Coronavirus at work: what employers need to know

View profile for Gina McCadden
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Coronavirus has now been declared as a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation and, at the time of writing, hundreds of cases have been confirmed in the UK.  The risk of the spread of coronavirus in the UK continues to rise and so employers should be considering how they should act if an employee intends to travel to China, contracts the virus in the UK or is absent from work.  Gina McCadden, Employment Solicitor, here explains the facts about the virus and how employers can take steps in accordance with the law.

What is the coronavirus and what are the symptoms?

The Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV or “Coronavirus”) was first reported in Wuhan, China at the end of December 2019.  People can experience flu-like symptoms such as a fever and a cough, which can develop into severe pneumonia causing breathing difficulties, as well as kidney failure.  Those who are more at risk include those with existing respiratory conditions, weakened immune systems, the elderly and those with long-term conditions such as diabetes, chronic lung disease and cancer. 

The virus has continued to spread outside of China, with 10,000 confirmed cases.  Medical experts believe that the virus spreads from human to human in a similar fashion to the common cold. 

Business travel to and from China and other affected areas

The UK Government has advised against all but essential travel to Wuhan and other affected areas throughout the world, so if you have employees who travel for business purposes, you should consider whether these appointments can be postponed or cancelled and, if they must continue, whether they can be done via Skype or video conferencing.  For employees returning from China and other affected areas, they should remain indoors and avoid contact with others for 14 days after leaving the area.  Should they require medical attention, they should make it clear that they have been to China when discussing their symptoms with their GP. 

As an employer, if your staff are either currently in China or any other affected area or are still intending to travel, you should remain in frequent communication with them to ensure they take all precautions to keep themselves safe.  Upon returning to the UK, you may wish to consider whether they can work from home to keep their need to come to the workplace to a minimum until they are sure they have not been infected, even if they are symptom free. 

How can I reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading in the workplace?

Unfortunately, the workplace can become a breeding ground for germs viruses if the correct measures are not taken.  As an employer, you are responsible for the health and safety of your employees; however your workforce must also accept their responsibility in accordance with the law.

You should ensure excellent hygiene standards are enforced across the business through the frequent washing of hands, providing alcohol sanitising gels or wipes and displaying relevant signage to remind your employees of the risks concerned. 

Those in particular sectors should take additional steps, for example those in the care sector, working with children, the elderly or those who work with vulnerable members of the community.

How should I act if an employee contracts coronavirus?

If the virus does continue to spread and you find yourself with employees on sick leave, then you should continue to consult your sickness absence policies.  All employers should implement an effective sickness absence policy to assist them with managing absences consistently and effectively as well as alerting employees to the standards of attendance and reporting what you expect from them.  Ahead of the potential spread of the virus, we would recommend that you remind all of your employees now of the policy, which can also serve as a reminder of the hygiene standards expected across your business. We also recommend that employers adopt an infectious diseases policy which details the Company’s response to the spread of infectious diseases.

Employees should be told that if they do display any of the symptoms that they need to contact their GP or the NHS 111 service, and any colleagues who have been in contact with the individual should also contact their GP or the NHS 111 service. 

In the situation where an employee is displaying symptoms, however the GP does not certify the employee as unfit for work, there may be grounds for briefly suspending them on precautionary grounds, which is likely to be on full pay.  You should proceed with caution if you do decide on this route, following your policies in place and ensuring there is no inconsistency in the treatment of your staff. 

You may also find your staff cancelling their holiday if they were planning to travel to infected areas, or falling ill while on their annual leave.  As an employer, you should be sympathetic to these requests and allow them to cancel without losing their entitlement, and if an employee falls ill while on annual leave, they may be entitled to claim that time off as sick leave and gain back their annual leave entitlement. 

While sickness due to the coronavirus should be treated the same as any other illness, due to the current lack of a vaccine or clear understanding of the risks, employers should be prepared to show some flexibility to their employees, while also enforcing consistency.  Any deviation from this could give rise to potential claims in the future, for example if an employee believes they were treated unfairly and so resign from their position, they could bring a claim for constructive unfair dismissal. The government have announced their plans to alter the rules of SSP for those affected by coronavirus. They have stated that those who are self isolating from GP or NHS 111 advice, should be entitled to SSP from day one of sickness instead of from day four.

It is recommended that all employers stay vigilant and up to date by checking the Government website regularly.  If you have questions about implementing a sickness policy or you would like to discuss how to ensure a safe working environment, you can contact Gina or the Employment team on 023 8071 7717 or email employment@warnergoodman.co.uk.  

This article has been published as part of the latest issue of our Commercial Brief.  To receive a copy of our Commercial Brief directly, you can complete our form to subscribe, or email events@warnergoodman.co.uk

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.